LOTOS Gdynia Aerobaltic
Saturday 21st August - Sunday 22nd August 2021
As one of the first major, international airshows to go ahead in Europe this year, LOTOS Gdynia Aerobaltic was in a prime position to grab some star acts for its display. Set at Babie Doły Airport, home to the Polish Navy's SAR and ASW assets, the show acted as both a welcome return for the European airshow-goer and a sad farewell to the Polish display unit Team Iskry.
reports from Gdynia, Poland for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author.
Airshow crowds are hungry. They're thirsty. They're famished for fast jet action. Nearly two years without a major military-supported show in Europe and suddenly the floodgates have opened. Aerobaltic took advantage of the fact that it was only the second major European show to take place this year, with the continent's season only beginning in mid-August, and they were accordingly able to hoover up a large amount of star acts from the international scene that they might otherwise not have been able to attract, with display pilots and air arms clearly eager to get out and about on the circuit wherever they can.
Headlining the show and very much billed as the main event were the RAF Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, who were performing in Poland for the first time since 2009. The Reds were as perfunctory and entertaining as they ever are, and finished their routine with a pretty classy "Polish Pass", drawing the red and white of the flaga Polski across the display line. Perhaps we're just so accustomed to the Red Arrows in the UK but seeing a foreign airshow crowd's reaction to the display was quite something - the crowd was visibly enrapt by the display like they were for no other, with plenty of applause and appreciation for the final nod to the home crowd. Europe's other BAE Hawk display team, the Finnish Midnight Hawks, were also at the show, with a very precise and well-executed four-ship display that is accentuated by the vivid white smoke trails from the wing-mounted pods. Finland has a well-deserved reputation for strong flying displays and the accompanying Hawk Solo Display, flown with the all-over blue and white schemed jet, showed off the type's agility and power well.
Finland was one of the participating nations that helped to support the "baltic" namesake. Germany provided a P-3 Orion and Eurofighter for the show's static display, which were joined by a Swedish Air Force Gripen. As is tradition, this was supporting the type in the flying display which featured the famously short take-off and landing performance and copious flares. Notably and touchingly, the display pilot, Major Peter Fällén, flew his final display on the Sunday and was given a water cannon salute by the airfield's fire engines and a small ceremony put on by the organisers afterwards.
Unfortunately, to the Gripen's disadvantage, on the Saturday it was placed on the billing almost directly after the French Air Force Rafale Solo Display. It felt harsh as it's an almost impossible act to follow - what more can be said about the AAE's Rafale solo display than it is simply the best fighter jet display in Europe, probably second in the world after the physics-defying Russian Su-35? Incredibly, Aerobaltic were able to support it with Europe's close second-best, the ever-charismatic Solotürk. If the pilot waving from the cockpit on every single pass wasn't enough to charm the crowd, the absolutely first-class effort of the commentator to deliver his entire routine in Polish, with quite literally zero loss of the enthusiasm, intonation and drama we associate with Solotürk commentaries (even if it might not have sounded quite right in the new language at times), was an audience winner.
Polish fast jet action was notably missing from the flying display, and while there was a Su-22 and MiG-29 on the ground in the static there was no planned display from any of the air force's jet types in the air at all, not even the F-16 Tiger Demo Team. However, during Sunday's lunchtime break, totally unannounced and, according to the show's social media at least, planned barely a few minutes before it happened, two Malbork-based QRA MiG-29 Fulcrums did a handful of energetic flypasts and missed approaches. Complementing them was another MiG pair in the form of two privately-owned Lim-2s. The SB Lim2, the Polish-built two-seater MiG-15, is a fairly common sight on the European display scene, with Norwegian, Czech and indeed this Polish examples doing the rounds quite frequently. The second Lim-2/MiG-15, though, was a real joy to behold as this very recent return-to-flight is the only airworthy single-seater MiG-15 in Europe (and, with the possible exception of North Korea, outside of the USA), having completed its restoration only a few months prior. The pairs routine was pretty solid, but perhaps might have benefitted from a distinct solo section for the single-seater, and (weirdly?) the duo were joined by Artur Kielak's Sbach 300 for part of their second display each day. Maybe this was just lost in translation for the UK visitor...
Rotary-wing fans were not left disappointed either, with two W-3 Sokoł displays - a fairly typical SAR role demo from the home nation's W-3 WARM Anakonda and a combi-SAR demo and solo display from its counterpart in the Czech Air Force. All told, relatively speaking this might well have been the best display of the whole show, with both elements flown with excitement and fun that couldn't help but make you grin. The Czech pilots really showed the type's surprising nimbleness off to great effect, throwing the small helicopter around the sky in all manner of maneouvres, and you had to feel for the two winchmen hanging on the end of the cable swinging round under the helicopter as it was thrown about. In fact, it was probably one of the best helicopter routines seen on the European circuit. It was joined by its compatriot Mi-24V and Mi-171Sh display, the Hind taking the lion's share of crowd action but brilliant to see in formation with the Hip.
By far the rarest helicopter on the schedule was the Polish Navy's SH-2G Seasprite. In fact, this was almost certainly the single last operational Seasprite in Europe and almost certainly its last ever display - with some Polish enthusiasts semi-jokingly suggesting Sunday's second routine might be its last ever flight. For an aircraft which is barely getting any flight hours at all let alone display time, the routine they put on was brilliant - classily opening and closing the display with two bows to the crowd, it was energetic and manoeuvrable, showing off all angles and regimes of the helicopter (it's surprising how quickly its front gear pop out!). If this is to be its last public appearance the pilots wrangled everything it had out of it.
Sadly, the show was a definite farewell to the delightful Team Iskry, whose mounts are finally out of operation with the Polish Air Force after 60 years of flying. As if to foreshadow this, one of the four jets had a nosegear collapse on arrival at the airport, precluding the intended threeship display, but the remaining three aircraft were all taken up over the weekend in pairs - the team even had the honour of opening and closing Saturday's show. With the type no longer in service and the commentator already describing the team in the past tense even as they were in the air, it was a bittersweet moment that really did bring a lump to the throat.
While the show had a genuinely star-studded military lineup, and the display programme was supported by some strong civilian acts, it was clear that the show organisers hadn't managed to secure the participation they needed to fill the 7 hour flying display they had committed to. Three or four acts each day went up twice performing the same displays - fair's fair, the stuff going up again were the likes of the Lim-2s and the SH-2G, they were star acts and for the weekend enthusiast up to four cracks at the likes of those was more than welcome, but it was a noticeable failing and for the casual showgoer probably a bit boring. Similarly, the show featured two three-ship general aviation displays (including the LOT Flight Academy formation team) and three unlimited aerobatic displays, a few even back to back - all flown very well and individually genuinely entertaining, especially the aerobatics displays, but, as much to the enthusiast as the day-out family in the crowd, all basically the same display repeated.
Your mileage will vary on this one. Where UK shows have outright cancelled due to the complexities of managing the COVID-19 requirements and where we've seen the likes of SIAF and Athens Flying Week in September announcing strict separation of vaccinated and unvaccinated crowd, with proof of testing or immunity required and strictly allocated seating only, Aerobaltic had very little COVID-19 restrictions apparent. God, we're all looking forward to the time when we don't have to think about what pandemic protocols an airshow has in place, and it feels like that is, now, finally, not too far away - but right now, it has to be borne in mind and considering the vaccination levels in Poland it's surprising (NB the author was able to travel to Poland due to being fully vaccinated). The ticketing was, apparently, limited numbers, although the crowd was still significantly sized, and the show's normal beach display element was cancelled this year as numbers couldn't be controlled but otherwise you'd never have known we weren't in normal times. Make of that what you will, of course - no doubt many reading this will love the sound of it, but coming from the UK with plenty of restrictions still active it was pretty noticeable what little there was in place.
Gdynia Aerobaltic 2021, as with any show this year, is an anomaly. No doubt it had a higher quality lineup than normal due to the paucity of major shows elsewhere this year, but even with that being the case, to get Europe's top two fast jet solo displays and probably the most prestigious display team in the world to your show is no small achievement. It was a last chance to see a couple of very rare aircraft in service and a welcome, oh, so welcome return to an airshow day out with afterburner noise and a variety of international high-performance acts. The shortcomings probably made it a more exciting show overall for the enthusiast than the day-tripper, and the static display on the ground was fairly limited in quantity, but as a kickstart back into some semblance of normality it did the job.